Grand vistas from a historic vantage point

The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg

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Since its opening in January 2017, the Elbphilharmonie has attracted throngs of visitors from all over the world. The concert hall suspended high above the harbour has thrilled and amazed thousands. How did the idea evolve to build a concert hall on top of a warehouse? And how did the makers take it from the first sketch to the building’s completion some ten years later? 

Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie is situated at the western point of the new HafenCity district, the largest inner-city urban development project in Europe.

Not only the spectacular architecture but also the combination of concert halls, a public plaza with spectacular views, restaurants, and a hotel makes the Elbphilharmonie a truly popular landmark.
Accommodating a philharmonic hall, a chamber music hall, restaurants, bars, a 37 metre-high terrace offering panoramic views of Hamburg and the harbour, apartments, a hotel and parking facilities, the building complex fuses a variety of uses, like a city. The heart of the complex is the Elbphilharmonie itself. The outcome is a space that foregrounds music listeners and music makers to such an extent that they shape the architecture. This marks a radical reformulation of the philharmonic building concept, emphasizing the reciprocity between artists and audience – almost like a football stadium.

Urban architecture for lovers of culture

The new philharmonic is not just a site for music; it is a fully-fledged residential and cultural complex. The concert hall, seating 2100, and the chamber music hall for 550 listeners are embedded in between luxury flats and a five-star hotel with in-house facilities including restaurants, a health and fitness centre, and conference rooms. Long a mute monument of the post-war era that occasionally hosted fringe events, the Kaispeicher A has now been transformed into a vibrant, international centre for music lovers, a magnet for both tourists and the business world. The Elbphilharmonie will become a landmark of the city of Hamburg and a beacon for all of Germany. It will vitalize the neighbourhood of the burgeoning HafenCity, ensuring that it is not merely a satellite of the venerable Hanseatic city but a new urban district in its own right.

The Kaispeicher A, designed by Werner Kallmorgen, was built between 1963 and 1966 and used as a warehouse until close to the end of the last century. Originally built to bear the weight of thousands of sacks of cocoa beans, it now lends its solid construction to supporting the Philharmonic premises. With its structural potential and strength, the old building was perfectly suitable for carrying a new construction resting on top of it.

The designers’ interest in the warehouse lay not only in its unexploited structural potential but also in its architecture. The robust, almost aloof-seeming building provided a surprisingly ideal foundation for the new philharmonic hall. It seemed to be part of the landscape and was not yet really part of the city, which has now finally pushed forward to it.

The new glass building

The design of the new building is informed by the shape of the Kaispeicher; it is identical in ground plan with the brick block of the older building, above which it rises. However, at the top and bottom, the new structure takes a different tack from the quiet, plain shape of the warehouse below: The undulating sweep of the roof rises from the lower eastern end to its full height of 108 metres at the Kaispitze, the tip of the peninsula. The Elbphilharmonie is a landmark visible from afar, lending an entirely new vertical accent to the horizontal layout that characterizes the city of Hamburg. There is a greater sense of space here in this new urban location, generated by the expanse of the water and the industrial scale of the seagoing vessels.
The glass façade, consisting in part of curved panels, some of them carved open, transforms the new building, perched on top of the old one, into a gigantic, iridescent crystal, whose appearance changes as it catches the reflections of the sky, the water and the city.

The concert hall

The main concert hall, seating 2100 and built at a height of 50 metres above ground level, forms the heart of the Elbphilharmonie. For the purpose of noise insulation, it was built with a double-shell construction, detached from the rest of the building. Following the “vineyard principle”, the orchestra is centrally positioned, with tiers of seats rising up steeply all around. No listener is further than 30 metres from the conductor. In this way, listeners are extraordinarily close to the music, despite the size of the hall. The main hall is not, then, defined purely by its architecture but also by the people who gather there to experience the music.

Acoustics were, of course, an essential consideration. For optimum sound in the main hall, Herzog & de Meuron worked with internationally renowned acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota and his company Nagata Acoustics to develop a specially-tailored wall and ceiling structure: The wall construction consists of gypsum fibreboard with 10,000 perforations, individually milled to the millimetre according to acoustic calculations, which reflect and scatter the sound. The hall is mainly intended to host classical concerts, but modern, electrically amplified events are planned here, too.

In addition, the reflector hanging from the ceiling helps disperse the sound evenly across the stage. But like a chandelier, it also functions as the central light fixture and contains some important technological components.          

Small hall and Kaistudio

The small hall, Kleiner Saal, seating up to 550, is situated on the eastern side of the Elbphilharmonie. Like the main hall, it is spring-mounted, but only on 56 spring assemblies. Designed in the classic shoebox style, the hall is 30 metres long and 20 metres high. The seating rows can be flexibly arranged, as can the stage, with its 18 rising platforms).


Does form necessarily have to follow function or can function be subordinated to an inspired architecture? This question has become the subject of much discussion as various elements of the Elbphilharmonie construction have proven impractical in everyday use – particularly the steep steps in the main hall and the disabled access areas. So, the millions of visitors still to come can hopefully expect even better conditions at the Elbphilharmonie and enjoy their visit to the full.

BTR Sonderband 2017
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 217
von Karin Winkelsaesser

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